Thursday, May 23, 2013

The fascination of war

Dead soldier at siege of Petersburg, Virginia, 1865. Wikimedia.

When I was in elementary school, I was a budding Civil War buff. I have a vivid memory that my fourth grade teacher let me bore my classmates for the duration of an entire period, lecturing about my hand drawn maps of the movements of the the Union Army of the Potomac and Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. I knew my stuff, or thought I did.

By the time I went to college, I had put that enthusiasm aside. My age peers were getting blown to bits in Vietnam in a war I believed was both stupid and immoral. War didn't seem an amusing board game anymore. Nothing that has happened in my lifetime has changed my growing conviction that "anything war can do peace can do better."

So I was brought up short as I read James M. McPherson's This Mighty Scourge to come upon passages like this one describing the Confederate general's strategic choices:
One way to approach this matter is by way of an analogy from football, in which most coaches would agree that the best defense is a good offense. Of course Lee knew nothing about modern American football, but he would have understood the slogan. … In other words, we [out-numbered and out-gunned Confederate forces] can can only win if we keep our opponent off balance with an imaginative offense.
I can no longer think about war as an intriguing game. I no longer believe that "we" can "win" wars. In my lifetime, our wars have not been about victory in any meaningful sense -- and unless you think invading Grenada was a "war," the United States hasn't "won" our military adventures.

But the Civil War is challenging to this perspective. This became a different (and better) country because, though the experience of the war, Union aims changed and were achieved, at least formally. The Great Rebellion (the Confederacy) was forced, violently, to surrender.
During the Civil War, Northern war aims as well as national and military strategies changed as the conflict expanded from a limited war intended to restore the antebellum status quo into a "hard war" intended to destroy enemy resources including slavery and to mobilize those resources on the Union side, to bring an end to the social order sustained by slavery, and to give the United States a "new birth of freedom."
Civil war enthusiasts obsess about the technologies and innovations of combat pioneered in this conflict and argue whether this was "the first modern war." Given where "modern wars" have taken us -- through the foul mud of trench warfare, poison gas, saturation bombing, nuclear bombs, drones -- I find this fascination macabre and the converse of attractive.

But I shared this gripping hobby as a very young person. Why do some people (mostly male people?) indulge that fascination? Why do some of us move away from this? Does it matter?

James McPherson's Civil War history raises that conundrum for me, an arena of questions I'd forgotten. Guess I'll have to read his magnum opus: Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.

This is my third post on McPherson's essays; on interpretations of the conflict here and on whether John Brown was terrorist here.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

When I was a child, a few civil war veterans were still alive. So it did not seem so long ago. It had a patina of romance then, being back in time but not too well studied from a historical perspective.
But there is nothing at all romantic about 20th and 21st Century wars.

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